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Hikers Discover Mexico’s Giant Copper Canyon

Hikers Discover Mexico’s Giant Copper Canyon

Copper Canyon, Mexico Dionosius, a barefoot Tarahumara Indian clad in loincloth, red headband and loose red billowing blouse, hesitates only momentarily, then urges his laden burro right over the canyon’s edge, down a cliff trail only his eyes can discern. Seven Americans follow.

Their destination is the natural hot springs pool far below. Its location is so remote that the massive canyon itself is unnamed.

Dionosius stops under an enormous, crazily balance boulder to examine a deer track on the trail. He says through an interpreter he speaks only Tarahumara that the chomariki is followed by a mountain lion¦close, very close. One American stoops to place her fingers in the cat tracks and laughs uneasily.

All this is a far cry from the colorful Mariachi bands and glittering beach-side resorts that give Mexico its touristy image, but the log cabins, massive pine forests and rocky trails are exactly what bring hikers and more adventurous tourists to the isolated Copper Canyon Batopilas area in Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre Occidental.

No internet, cell phone service, glaring lights or oily, suntanned bodies here. In fact, visitors gladly plunk down a good chunk of change for a room lit only by kerosene lanterns, and a chance to sweat over the steep unmarked trails radiating out from this antique village on the subtropical floor of the Copper Canyon.

Wolves, mountain lions and even reputed grizzly bears, together with the total lack of accurate maps of the broken canyon country qualify this as the most rugged and least known area in North American today.

The largely unexplored Copper Canyon, itself, is really an assemblage of six different interconnecting canyons. It is five times larger than our own Grand Canyon and, at over 7,000 feet, about one and one-half times as deep.

Before 1961, these immense slices into the Pacific flank of the Continental Divide were known only to pilots who had seen them from the air, closed-mouthed miners and footsore Jesuit missionaries. That year, the Chihuahua Al Pacifico Railway, pushing its way through the mazelike sierras to the ocean, touched one edge of the canyon.

The seven American travelers pile off the train in Creel. The French backpackers follow, glad to be on terra firma. Creel has the reputation of a rugged cowboy town; a stopover for folks heading into the unmarked, undeveloped, Batopilas canyons. The group of seven is met by Roberto, the Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge driver. Roberto shows them to the vehicle. Jammed aboard, they follow the main road out of town, past wind-swept boulders, an inhabited Tarahumara Indian cave high on a ridge, and an occasional Tarahumara woman with her child wrapped in a wool blanket, close to her chest. Robert drives with one hand and leans out with the other to point out in excited Spanish the turtle shaped rock here, and the elephant rock there.

This is Tarahumara Indian country. Once plains dwellers, they disliked the encroaching Spanish settlements and over three centuries ago chose to move to a land nobody wanted the impenetrable mountains and canyons of the sierra. Here, they pursue their ascetic, mystical lifestyle in isolation from the outside world. Of the 50,000 or so Tarahumara, about 10% live in caves as they always have. Tarahumara literally means foot-runner. Their endurance is legendary their running races cover hundreds of miles over cliff-hanging trails and take two days to complete. They run at night by carrying pine torches. Their life style is spare, no colorful pots or blankets, their homes primitive piles of rock or hand hewn boards. Few speak Spanish, and fewer admit it, preferring not to talk with outsiders. Those who have moved to the city are called those who are mistaken.

Says Skip McWilliams, the American who founded the Copper Canyon Lodges, They are unfriendly by our standards, but are really very, very kind people. They simple believe their lifestyle is superior to ours and are intellectually highly sophisticated. A Tarahumara conversation is like Nietche and Emmanuel Kant talking. It runs quickly to the nature of reality and even beyond, would you believe, to the basis for considering the nature of reality. It’s no wonder they don’t want to have their talk interrupted by a tourist wanting to snap a photo.

Tarahumara make no villages, preferring to build individual homes in tiny valleys or hidden on inaccessible cliffs. They sleep in the open on below freezing nights and often go shoeless in the snow. Anthropologists report hunting deer by running them to death; a process which often takes more than 24 hours!

In the summer, many Tarahumaras live in the high plateaus planting small crops of corn and beans, moving in winter to caves on the warmer sheltered canyon slopes. They live a large part of the year by hunting and gathering. The most common hunting weapon? Stones. Remarkably deadly at up to 100 feet, on anthropologist wrote any animal smaller than a coyote is ill-advised to stay within a stone’s throw of a Tarahumara.

One guest remarked after spending six days in the wild canyons with guides and burros, It’s primitive, but I like to rough it! This is definitely not your sushi in the wilderness type soft adventure, but if I wanted luxury, I could have gone to Acapulco.

The trails are the strenuous, often steep Tarahumara Indian trails that weave the sierra. They often cling to cliffs or drop-offs, and while there is no rope dangling type climbing required, the 8,000-foot altitude and incline class the hikes as strenuous and dangerous. Although only one person in the group has extensive hiking experience, all the rest seem in average or better shape.

Says McWilliams, I wanted to have a headquarters for people like me who have a ball roughing it, exploring and meeting a country on its own terms. What we have here is a chance to experience the real Mexico and to get a glimpse of the living past.

Today, the lodges are operated and maintained by Martin Alcaraz, who lives in Batopilas and splits his time between managing the upscale Riverside Lodge in Batopilas, and the nearby small boutique hotel, Real de Minas.

Says McWilliams of the Tarahumara, These people haven’t changed and won’t. When I see one high up a precipice, standing against the sky, as they like to do to admire the view, I know I am seeing something real and alive not only out of the past but also out of the future. Time has no meaning for the Tarahumara. Time stands still in the Sierra Tarahumara.